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Heroes of the Storm’s voice chat would hurt minority communities

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The case against adding standardized voice chat to Heroes of the Storm

heroes of the storm art Blizzard

I’m FerociouslySteph, a Blizzard-endorsed and featured Heroes of the Storm streamer. HotS is a passion of mine, and I have worked hard to reach the highest ranks of solo competitive play. I’m in the top 10 for North America, and have been for the past five consecutive seasons.

I am also openly and transparently transgender. As such my community is LGBT+ rich, and is the largest queer-led community within the HotS scene. As a leader of a very community I feel morally obligated to protect and campaign for diversity within my game. Diversity that I feel is threatened by the impending implementation of integrated voice chat to Heroes of the Storm.

Why voice chat is a problem for some

HotS is a MOBA, a five-versus-five, player-versus-player game where teamwork is essential for victory, and thus communication is key.

The game has robust non-verbal communication options including text chat and the ability to quickly ping locations or status information for other players, but it’s not surprising that voice chat would be one of the most requested features for the game. Voice chat allows a quicker, denser way to convey information and strategy.

However, voice chat comes with unintended social complications. You must expose personal information to participate. If the sound or syntax of your communication is non-standard, you risk being judged as “different” by the community, instead of competitive merit. Research supports the idea that being seen as female alters your teammates perceptions of you, and also introduces more negativity and harassment.

Your linguistics also carry cues about your age and ethnicity. Other common targets for judgement and harassment are feminine sounding men or people with communication disorders.

I believe people shouldn’t be forced to reveal their marginalized status, risking judgement and harassment, to reach their peak competitive potential.

Most criticism I have received (and will continue to receive) is that these issues are trivial, because harassers are few and easily nullified by a mute. I hope the critic considers that the issues with revealing yourself as a member of a marginalized group go further than harassment.

Social biases can easily cause subtle, harder-to-quantify disadvantage. The only way to escape having those biases attached to you is to not speak at all … which also puts you in a disadvantage if the feature becomes commonplace in competitive play.

Every time you are forced to mute a harasser you are restricting the flow of information they may still be feeding the rest of the team. And even if the harasser hurts their own winrate in the process, minorities are by definition fewer in number -- the average game won’t have one, but all of mine will.

This is why it’s important to listen to the perspective of members of minority groups, as it can be surprising to some how often we face harassment. The commonplace nature of harassment based on our voices often leads to anxiety, causing many to choose silence or to abandon the game altogether for titles that don’t require you to speak.

Another issue is that Blizzard has no way of policing their voice chat. The company does not even seem to have the resources to work through all the text-chat abuse and harassment reports it receives. Blizzard seems to rely on few targeted punishments, and automatic bans if a player gets too many reports. It shouldn’t be the job of the victim of the harassment to make sure the abuser gets enough reports to be kicked from the game.

Voice chat seems like a lose-lose situation if you have a voice that gives away your inclusion in any marginalized group. Either you mute and restrict the flow of information the feature provides, or you subject yourself to judgement and abuse. This is discouraging to anyone who wishes to see more minority and female representation in esports, especially within the Blizzard gaming world, where currently there is no female representation in any contracted professional team for HotS or Overwatch.

Players will always have options like Discord or other third-party chat programs if they want to bring in voice chat for their group of friends. But there’s no pressure to use those solutions now, in a broad sense. Heroes of the Storm launched without an official voice solution, and it’s doing fine gathering a community without one.

I hope to one day cheer on a diverse set of players competing in the professional realm, but adding voice chat will likely chase away many of those players in their early days of competitive play.

So what can be done?

Awareness that this issue exists is critical. I want Blizzard to listen to the pleas of its community and publicly acknowledge the inclusivity-cost of this upcoming change.

I am also encouraging the HotS leadership to make a public statement against toxicity and demonstrate commitment to fighting it through resources allocated to the task of stopping toxic players. This has nothing to do with Heroes of the Storm itself; this is the minimum level of participation every developer and publisher should show toward its community.

I also propose that voice chat be limited to in-game friends and party only, providing a significant barrier for any player from any background to not be peer-pressured into joining chat, or griefed/harassed for not doing so. Neither of these options are as good as no voice chat included in-game, but both would make a big difference towards ensuring a more level, fair, and safe playing field for all players. It would make a good compromise for everyone involved in this discussion.

The effort shouldn’t stop there, however. I face harassment in my chat daily as a transgender streamer. I have built a community of kind, considerate people, and yet the harassment never stops. This piece about voice chat in one particular game discusses dealing with a symptom of toxic gaming culture, while the disease will remain common.

A single person can subject an entire chat room, hundreds of people, to harassment with a single statement. On high view-count days my moderators need to be on high alert, comments are nearly always about my transgender status ... Trying to keep the chat safe for fans and myself often takes a priority over anything else.

This can be exhausting to many, and few feel like they can truly make a difference in the grand scale of many issues, especially when they’re aware of how many people see them as lesser by default because of their minority status. I am here campaigning for those who may not wish to publicly fight for their right to be treated as equal competitors because of their minority status. This is a situation in which we can make a difference.

I am hoping to protect the quiet diversity within the HotS player base. Many minorities face targeted harassment in their daily lives, and implementing voice chat will bring that harassment directly into the game space; a game space that many use as an escape from the unfair judgement in their lives.

In my world, the inclusivity-cost of voice chat is very real. The addition of voice chat will push many marginalized players out of the base.

Blizzard has said on many occasions that it values diversity in its games, but the voice-chat implementation shows otherwise; I sincerely hope the company is willing to protect the diversity it claims to cherish.